WILCOX, Harold J.
- 20 years
- United States
- First Lieutenant
- B17 G Fortress 42-97693
- 11th June 1944
- Allied Aircrew Memorial, Guernsey
conditions the pathfinder aircraft would fly in the formation’s lead position. Once the radar indicated that it was directly over the cloud‐covered target, the pathfinder would release its bombs. The rest of the formation, following the pathfinder’s lead, would then follow suit and drop its bomb payload. The codename for this style of radar‐led mission was known as ‘Mickey’ and the success of the bombing run rested on the skill of a highly trained radar operator. That roll was fulfilled on this aircraft by First Lieutenant Glenn Fister and due to the importance of that aircraft on the entire mission, Group Leader Captain James P Stratton of the 339th Bombardment Squadron, flew onboard this B‐17 making this now a 12‐ man crew as opposed to the normal 10 man crew of other B‐17s. Crew of B‐17 42‐97693
Pontaubault is a small village in lower Normandy and would normally not be considered a military target. However, the D‐Day landings on the beaches of upper Normandy five days earlier had dramatically changed such considerations. The otherwise insignificant village of Pontaubault was where the road from Renne to Caen crossed the Sélune River, a tidal estuary that flowed into the Bay of St Malo. German reinforcements coming up from Renne, primarily the German 984th Infantry Regiment of Kamfgroup Heintz were ordered to help repel the Allied invasion in Normandy and they would have to cross the Sélune River to do so (see map above). Therefore this particular mission would help isolate Normandy from potential reinforcements coming from the Brest peninsula. The railway bridge was that day’s primary target for the 339th Bombardment Squadron; secondary targets would include virtually any road, railroad trestle, marshalling yard, or troop convoy they could find. Yet their orders were not to attack any secondary target near a populated area unless they had a positive visual sighting, which was unlikely to happen considering the weather.
The Flying Fortress that was piloted by 1st Lt Harold Wilcox lifted off from the US Army Air Force Station at Snetterton Heath, Norfolk, England, at 0415. Twenty‐five Flying Fortresses took off that morning from that base, each carrying two 2,000 lb. demolition bombs. 42‐97693 as the pathfinder aircraft was to be the lead that morning, the first to take off, and directed the assembly of the other aircraft in Group 968. The assembly at 11,000 feet with 25 aircraft of the 388th Bombardment Group went without problems, was on time and in clear weather. As the formation flew south, it encountered thick altocumulus clouds as they approached the Southampton‐Portsmouth area of Hampshire, England. The heavy grey altocumulus clouds remained dense as they flew out across the Channel at around 0700. Visibility in storm clouds and rain squalls was extremely poor, and the Flying Fortresses in Group 968 began to lose track of each other. All the aircraft in the group became separated in the clouds. Group 968 also began to fly off course, going due south rather than in a south‐westerly direction. The weather was considerably worse than their briefing had indicated it would be, and the group leader, Captain Stratton, ordered the group to rise above the clouds. At 0728, the group had reached 18,700 feet ‐ two thousand feet higher than when it had left the English coast ‐ and was in the general area of Guernsey and Jersey. The units turned east and onto their targets in France; the 388th Bombardment Group reported: ‘On the 11 June 1944, again we were scheduled to hit a railroad bridge, this one south of Le Havre, at Pontaubault. We took off in terrible weather and flew to the target through squalls and even worse. We made one run on the bridge but held our bombs, circled round into position again and flew down the alley on a second attempt, this time we let our eggs drop, but with unobserved results. The units turned away from the target for the Channel Islands and the route back to England’. Meanwhile a B‐17 Flying Fortress from 390th Bombardment Group was on a mission that morning to the airfield at Dirard‐Pleurtuit, France. This second B‐17, 42‐107199 and nicknamed Powerful Katrinka piloted by First Lieutenant William Gavin, was the lead aircraft for that target, taking off from their base at Framlingham, Suffolk.
The airfield at Dirard‐Pleurtuit is located 5 km SSW of Dinard and 1.75 km NW of the village of Pleurtuit (and about 35 miles west of Pontaubault). It was the base for 2 Staffel of Nahaufklärungsgruppe 13 a German fighter interceptor unit equipped with Messerschmitt Bf 109G aircraft. This unit regularly would intercept and attack bombers on their return flights from targets in Germany; consequently it was necessary to disrupt operations from this base and to ensure they were not called in to assist in repelling the Allied Invasion forces in Normandy. The bomb run that day at 0749 saw the airfield nearly destroyed and the aircraft then turned away and headed north towards the Channel Islands to follow the route back to England.
Powerful Katrinka had been hit by Flak over the target and was last seen at 0815 at approximate position 49° 10′ North and 2° 50′ West, about ten and a half miles south of Guernsey with one of its engines on fire ‐ either No. 3 or No. 4 engine. The pilot tried several steep dives and climbs to extinguish the flames, which he hoped would blow out the fire, but these were unsuccessful. The aircraft was last seen in a dive as it entered the undercast (top of which was reported at 19,000 ft). The pilot then ordered the crew to bail out; a number of parachutes were reported by other aircraft in the formation (although it is unclear how many successfully parachuted from the plane). The following information came from other aircraft in that group: One crew reported eight men bailed out with only one chute seen to open; two crews reported seven men bailed out and that one of them fell out of his chute after it opened, the other six being delayed jumps; one crew reported five chutes including one man who fell out of his chute after it opened. This B‐17 had been flying at 21,000 feet, probably descending, when its crew bailed out. At this height, the heavy storm clouds reached tops up to 17,500 feet, with some peaking at 21,000 feet. At approximately the same time in position 49° 25′ North and 2° 53′ West about eight miles south of Guernsey, Wilcox’s Pathfinder led the group through one of the taller cloudbanks. The other aircrews in the formation never saw the Pathfinder again.
Local diarist Ken Lewis mentions the following: I heard planes during the night and also this morning. At about 0915, local time in Guernsey (0815 UK time), I heard a tremendous roar and it appeared that six four‐engine bombers passed over at about 3,500 ft and were visible (although I did not see them); they were in close formation and the Germans did not open fire till they had nearly passed. When the Flak started they broke formation and went off to the west. Another report was recorded by Martin J Le Page who wrote: On this particular Sunday (11 June 1944), lazing around the sitting room, and a little bit ‘browned off’, I heard the sound of aircraft engines getting nearer and nearer. Going to the French windows I opened them and stood outside in the drizzle. The visibility was so bad that it was difficult to see across the valley to Hauteville, and Fort George was completely hidden. The engine noise got louder, and suddenly out of the low cloud above the harbour appeared a B‐17 Flying Fortress, and then another, and another, until there were at least nine Forts. They were so close that the USAF insignia was plain to see, and if I had had my wits about me, so also were the individual identification markings. Whilst I watched in astonishment, the formation flew across to the west coast before the Germans recovered from their surprise and opened fire. The aircraft were just vanishing into the mist over Vazon way when I saw a ball of fire fall from one of the ‘planes, and then the excitement was over. Although there was some speculation afterwards, we never knew exactly what happened, except that a few people, on the ground and in the air, got some severe frights.
On board the Pathfinder, Staff Sergeant Adonal Hudson later reported that the cloudbank completely obscured their visibility. The pilot, Lt Wilcox, banked to the right. All of a sudden, there was a shuddering jolt and a noise of ripping metal. The Pathfinder had hit another aircraft with its right wing. For a few seconds of chaos, the Pathfinder fell out of control, dropping from the sky. The violence of the fall threw the crew members about the flight deck. First Lieutenant Wilcox eventually managed to pull the B‐17 out of its free‐fall, and flew the aircraft level and toward the French coast [suspected to be Guernsey]. Staff Sergeant Hudson buckled on his parachute, and helped one of the waist gunners ‐ either Staff Sergeant Richmond Reed or Staff Sergeant Paul Davis ‐ put on his parachute, as he was too disoriented to do it unaided. The radio operator, Technical Sergeant Thomas Smith, was unable to transmit any form of distress call, likely due to physical injury or shock. Suddenly, the right wing gave way dropping on land. The Pathfinder rolled over to the right. There was an explosion, tearing the aircraft apart. Staff Sergeant Hudson was thrown clear from the aircraft, pulled his parachute ripcord, and dropped slowly into the sea. It would appear that travelling on a converging path the two units now at about the same altitude came together at the head with the pathfinder hitting Powerful Katrinka. It is not mentioned by Hudson but the manoeuvre banking right could have been in an attempt to avoid the Flak known to have started before the collision. It is not known if Powerful Katrinka was still piloted or if this was the wreck gliding with all the crew having bailed out. Other local reports make mention of a wing section landing in La Route Du Picquerel, while a local military report in the book History of the Flak Units in Guernsey states that on the 11 June, 1944 in the early morning eight Fortresses Mk2s suddenly appeared out of thick mist over the island. The heavy, medium and light guns acting in collaboration destroyed two of the machines. The German naval command broadcast the following which was sent via Enigma and decrypted as: At 09:05 six Fortress 2, flew over Guernsey, fired at by Flak and small arms of Battery Mirus and Steinbuch. Two aircraft were shot down in square 2692 centre right and top.
As Staff Sergeant Hudson drifted toward the water, a P‐38 Lightning passed overhead. (The bombardment mission was supported by groups of P‐51 Mustang and P‐47 Thunderbolt fighters; the P‐38 was part of a separate mission operating in the same general area.) The P‐38 Lightning may have radioed in a report of a downed American parachuting into the sea. An American Consolidated PBY Catalina, Air‐Sea Rescue aircraft arrived at the scene at around 0900, forty‐seven minutes after the accident, and picked him up. According to the rescue crew, he was four‐to‐five miles off the coast of Cherbourg. However this is considered unlikely and they possibly mistook the west coast of Guernsey for the west of the Cherbourg peninsula. Staff Sergeant Hudson told the Air‐Sea Rescue crew that he had seen another parachute off in the distance, but could not tell whether anyone was in it or not (this could have been the now empty chute reported from Powerful Katrinka). The Air‐Sea Rescue plane searched the area thoroughly, but did not find any trace of a second parachute or any other survivors. Staff Sergeant Hudson was the only member of either crew to survive this mid‐air collision and explosion; considering the violence of the explosion, he doubted there could be any other crew members fortunate enough to survive as he had. Air sea rescue attempts continued throughout the day for the two crews with 10 Group RAF also involved later in the day. They reported in their Occurrence Record Book that two Spitfires of No. 276 Squadron AD111 (D) Fl/Lt McBrien and BM474 (I) F/Sgt Godbolt, were dispatched to search the area; their time up was at 2030 and they were back down at 2245. The section had been contacted as support by an RAF Warwick flying in a triangular search pattern 60 miles NW of Guernsey down to Iles Bréhat and up to Cherbourg. The Warwick was apparently lost in the thick cloud and was never located by the Spitfires, so the section carried out the search without contact until light failed and they were forced to withdraw with no sightings.
No bodies of the remaining crews were ever recovered although on 30 May 2014 a propeller from a B‐17 was found five nautical miles west of Guernsey by local fisherman Zeb Le Noury. It was a long way out for either aircraft, but given the location it was found in, it is most likely that is from the pathfinder; the consensus being that it was most likely trawled up before by another fisherman and dumped in is new location, as no other aircraft debris was located with it. The names of the missing are recorded on the Allied Aircrew Memorial at Guernsey Airport. As a final note, one of the targets for the operation ‐ the railway bridge at Pontaubault ‐ was not completely destroyed and this subsequently allowed General Patton’s US troops to pour into Brittany over that same bridge at the end of July during Operation Cobra ‐ the codename for the offensive launched by the First United States Army (Lieutenant General Omar Bradley) seven weeks after the D‐Day landings during the Normandy Campaign